Stewardship and management of common pastures in Romania

Author: Anastasia Oprea, Eco Ruralis

1) Objectives and highlights

The objective of this case study is to understand contrasting attitudes from local authorities toward facilitating access to land managed in a common stewardship in rural Transylvania. The local authorities in Sâncraiu facilitated access to common land both directly – by providing information on available land to a young farmer – as well as indirectly by implementing a coherent and sustainable social and economic development plan, thus preventing depopulation and the commodification or privatisation of the land. In the Săcuieu commune, however, local authorities delayed infrastructure and social services modernisation, failing to facilitate both the engagement of local peasants and farmers in local decision-making, as well as land access and stewardship.

2) Stakeholders involved

We are presenting the case of a young shepherd living in Rogojel village (com. Săcuieu), Transylvania, who single-handedly runs a farm of 600 sheep, by relying seasonally on access to common land leased to him by the nearby village, Alunișu (com. Sâncraiu). The stakeholders in this case study are the local authorities, the town halls and local councils in the Săcuieu and Sâncraiu communes, respectively, in their different capacities of facilitating, or not, access to common land for the development of this sheep farm.

3) Context and levers

Romania hosts 31.5% of all EU farms. With 98% of farms in Romania using less than 10 ha of land, common agricultural land is a crucial asset for Romanian peasants, conditioning their possibility of keeping livestock and thus ensuring their market competitiveness and livelihoods, as well as continuing their traditional rural lifestyle.

The majority of permanent pasture in the country is under state or community ownership. Common grazing land is owned by local administration, private organisations or individuals, but is characterized by multiple grazing rights. Over half of the 3.4 million ha of permanent pasture in Romania can be considered common land. The vast majority of villages still retain at least one pasture which is used in common by the local inhabitants. The very low rate of intra-family farm succession (under 25%) and the general rural depopulation in the country are legitimising local authorities – often the legal administrators of the common pastures – to concession out large parts of the commons to industrial investors or to privatise the commons for non-farming purposes, such as urban sprawl.

In this analysis, we will use “commons” as common pasture, or grazing land. Most small farmers and peasants in rural communities traditionally send their sheep, goats or cows out to graze all together on these lands. Often the activity of looking over the animals constitutes the livelihood of one specialised small farmer, who is managing – at least seasonally – all the animals of the community, as is the case with our young shepherd. Rather than individuals buying or leasing their own grazing land, communities contribute to the maintenance and financial needs of the commons in exchange for access to the land for their animals, while at the same time paying individual contributions to the shepherd/cowherd, thus creating a local, community-based, circular economy system.

4) Actions led

Since not all land plots are registered in informatic databases in Romania, local authorities are custodians of the knowledge regarding who owns what land. They also play a key role in facilitating community dialogue around access to commons. This can lead to information and communication gaps between the local authorities and the members of the community.

The total surface required for the shepherd’s farm throughout the year is 130 ha, out of which he gradually bought 30 ha in his village, Rogojel, with another 30 hectares being rented in the same village from privately owned land. However, the Săcuieu commune, where the shepherd's family farm is located, did not support his efforts to search for more lands to sustain his own flock as well as for managing sheeps of the rest of the villagers (in exchange for produce and/or money).

On the other hand, the Sâncraiu local authorities chose to support the shepherd's access to land information and facilitate the use of commons. Furthermore, by designing and implementing a long term sustainable development plan for the commune, which consisted in significant investments in infrastructure, public services and social assistance, the local authorities prevented depopulation and promoted the local and sustainable organisation of the food chain. This includes the processing and marketing of agricultural products, animal welfare and risk management in agriculture - one of its top priorities, thus putting access to land for agroecological uses at its center.

The two local authorities in Săcuieu and Sâncraiu acted very differently regarding the access and management of their commons. As such, we will present two sets of actions which complement each other and reflect the contrasting stances with regards to access to common land, affecting particularly young farmers and new entrants to agriculture.

Actions led by the Sâncraiu local administration:

  • incentivised traditional food production, reliant on the continuity of peasant and small-scale agriculture and common land stewardship, by attracting EU funds and implementing projects safeguarding local traditional craftsmanship;

  • strengthened the economic autonomy and environmental sustainability of the community by supporting the establishment of a local agro-touristic agency which provides them with income, limiting the need for environmentally damaging industrial enterprises, including industrial agriculture;

  • preserved the common land by implementing an updated river basin infrastructure and management project, mitigating the effects of climate change (river bank reinforcement, bridges, bed regularization - watershed development).

Desirable actions from the situation in Săcuieu:

  • address and eliminate abuses of power by elected local representatives, in particular in relation to private/individually, as well as commonly owned and managed land;

  • carry out and disseminate a comprehensive inventory of the commons the village, taking in consideration the different legal and administrative, as well as informal tenure and customary rights and agreements between local farmers;

  • facilitate local, formal and collective organising of farmers (particularly young farmers and new entrants) into associations and/or cooperatives in order for them to gain more negotiation power in local democratic decision-making processes.

5) Limits and perspectives

The research for this case study entailed bilateral engagements with the local authorities from the two Transylvanian villages and communes, Rogojel/Săcuieu and Alunișu/Sâncraiu, on the topic of access to and management of the commons. Local authorities highlighted as main bottlenecks the lack of a generational renewal of local farmers, and particularly animal breeders. Additionally, the lack of more formal cooperation of the local farming communities was also mentioned as an important obstacle for better management of the commons. They also stressed the issue of pedo-climatic and biological degradation of the common pastures due to abandonment and poor management by private lessees (in the form of intensified over-grazing, under-grazing, inadequate maintenance and general lack of a long term farming vision over these lands).

Stewardship of the commons represents a unique alternative to the private farmland management system. The moderate degree of legal and administrative formalisation makes it particularly vulnerable due to a lack of transparency when commodified. Local authorities are central stakeholders in the management of the commons, having a strong legal/administrative role. At the same time, they have a disproportionate decision-making power on who has/gains access to the commons. This is due to the low level of democratic participation in the decision-making processes of the local communities. The lack of consultative processes including local farmers, peasants, and rural communities in general in local decision-making, as well as lack of self-organisation of farmers and peasants into local, formal associations or cooperatives are additional limits that explain the communities’ low negotiation power.

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